By Dianne Danowski Smith, APR, Consultant
Oregon Bio’s Innovation Showcase Pitch Competition at the Biotech Summit 2023 – held in late October – produced exciting results (and possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities) for researchers and startups.
The long-running competition seeks to elevate bio entrepreneurs and display the emerging innovations to foster discovery and explore science to improve lives.
Overall, three researchers and four startups captured the imagination of the judges and attendees. In the Basic Research category, Taylor Krilanovich from Washington State University’s Vancouver campus won the judges’ choice award for the research she’s leading about ‘puzzling pigments and rethinking developmental involvement of the OCA2 gene.’
Said Taylor, “I became interested in the developmental biology of pigment and pigment disorders while searching for graduate programs in my senior year of undergrad. I knew that I wanted to work with a lab focused on cellular signaling, and my principal investigator’s research just sucked me in. I had no idea how understudied congenital pigment loss in humans was until this point, and I decided that I wanted to contribute to research that was closing this knowledge gap.”
She added she’s been motivated to go into biomedical research in large part by the current class, race, gender and regional inequities in leading-edge therapeutics available to most people. “I hope I am able to contribute novel solutions that alleviate these issues during my career.”
The audience favorite in the Basic Research category was Amelie Andreas from Reed College, who shared about manganese2+ ions and bacterial pathogenesis. She shared what spurred her interest. “I am fascinated by the way that bacteria can sense and respond to their environments. I see them as tiny, programmable machines with astounding capacity to influence whole ecosystems, manufacture incredible chemical compounds, and deftly adapt to stressful environments. These traits, while useful in the right context, make them formidable foes in human disease. I fell in love with my research involving bacterial manganese ion homeostasis because it digs deep into the brilliant ways that bacteria maintain stores of an essential nutrient, while providing information that could one day be used to prevent bacterial infections.”
Both judges and Summit attendees chose AlpaCure, pitched by Timothy Bates, Ph.D., as their pick in the Translational Research category. AlpaCure looks to ‘harness the power of alpaca single-domain antibodies to diagnose tuberculosis,’ a world health threat. “I have been interested in antibodies for about a decade now, and as soon as I learned about single domain antibodies, also known as ‘nanobodies,’ which are trademarked by Sanofi, I was instantly hooked. I think it is so cool that alpacas make these special heavy-chain-only antibodies, and that we can make single-domain antibodies from them. Part of my Ph.D. project was to make these against tuberculosis, and that started us on our current path, focused on TB diagnostics.”
We asked Timothy what’s motivated him thus far. “My co-founder and I both want to do something truly impactful for global health, and the fact that we get to work with these cool single-domain antibodies just adds to our enthusiasm.”
The judging panel then viewed pitches from entrepreneurs in the Early- and Later-Stage Startup categories and named AirOmatix Inc. as the Early-Stage winner and Trace Biosciences as the Later-Stage winner.
Jun Kamata of AirOmatix Inc. presented how his young firm is revolutionizing medical oxygen, showing how there is a $50 million+ world market for their innovative personalized and portable medical O2 pumps.
Connor Barth, Ph.D. won the audience’s preference for his Later-Stage Startup presentation entitled, ‘Imaging agents for real-time nerve visualization during surgery.’ What interested Connor in this field? “I joined the Gibbs Lab at OHSU in 2014 and began working on the technology we are commercializing as I began my graduate studies. In 2018, toward the end of my dissertation work, we made a breakthrough in developing the technology, making clinical translation a real possibility, and so I have been working on achieving clinical translation and commercialization of the promising nerve specific fluorescence contrast agents under Trace Biosciences ever since.
“Thus far, I’ve been motivated – as an inventor of the technology – to see the impact it has to patient care as we begin clinical trials and obtain approval for use during surgery. Additionally, the overwhelming response we have received from surgeons and patients about the potential value our technology can provide has provided strong motivation to complete clinical translation as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Audience favorites in the Early- and Later-Stage Startup categories comprised entrants KeyBiome LLC and Birch Biosciences. Catherine Robinson, Ph.D. gave her presentation titled ‘Developing a therapeutic for IBD, sourced from the healthy microbiome.’ Understanding inflammatory bowel disease is the clear focus of her firm. “I have been doing research in the microbiome field for more than 15 years, combined from my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research experiences. Through this work I have come to have a deep appreciation for the intricate connections between human health and our microbial residents. In my current lab, we are making really exciting discoveries related to identifying specific microbiome-produced molecules that have profound implications for animal health, one of them being a novel anti-inflammatory protein.”
At KeyBiome LLC, Catherine added what encourages her: “I am motivated by the potential for this protein to be developed as a therapeutic to treat diseases of chronic inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease, where patients are desperate for more effective treatment options.”
The Later-Stage Startup that captured the audience’s preference was Birch Biosciences, founded by Johan Kers, Ph.D. Johan presented his company’s mission to reinvent plastic recycling by using synthetic biology.
Thank you to those who served on the judging panels of Biotech Summit 2023:
Phil Barish, Ph.D., Senior Alliance Manager, New Ventures, OHSU
John Cumbers, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, SynBioBeta
Shula Jaron, Ph.D., Experienced Entrepreneur and Executive
Tom Kassberg, Chief Business Officer, Ultragenyx
Melissa Mudd, Alliance Manager, OHSU Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute
Skip Rung, President and Executive Director, ONAMI
Sandra Shotwell, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CEO, ElexBiotech